The 80s may not be as outstanding a decade for film as the 1970s were, but it did give us Raiders of the Lost Ark, Do the Right Thing, Raging Bull, Die Hard, Amadeus, The Thing, The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining. It was the era of filmmaker John Hughes, too, and his oeuvre changed teen-themed entertainment forever.
The 80s also happened to be the decade when the term “high concept” was coined, and such films still drive the business today. One could even say that what has come to be known as the “elevator pitch,” a one-sentence sell of a story idea, has its roots in those high-concept themes of Eighties productions.
Some feel that the 80s may have been too slick and pat, a reflection of Reagan, a greedy economy, and MTV, but the better films of the era managed to deliver commercially and critically. Some of it even managed to be daring in a 70s anti-establishment sort of way.
Seeing the decade’s biggest star Arnold Schwarzenegger get his ass kicked in Predator was certainly daring. Female stars flourished without prominent male costars in 9 to 5, Baby Boom, and Steel Magnolias. And the decade made great hay out of dysfunctional families in Terms of Endearment, Fatal Attraction, and Ordinary People. How edgy it was that Robert Redford even turned America’s sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore, into a villain in that latter Oscar-winning film.
For the modern screenwriter, there are many sterling examples of 80s films that were commercially calculated yet had scripts that could stand with any decade’s first class. 1985 gave us three such movies blending commerciality, narrative discipline, and daring—their scripts a marvel to behold.
There is a school of thought in screenwriting that storytellers should ensure that every scene contributes to the hero’s internal conflict, his battle with his or her fatal flaw. It’s a rigor often ignored, but when it’s followed, it makes for sublime, character-driven cinemas in Peter Weir’s outstanding 1985 thriller, Witness.
Harrison Ford plays John Book, a tough but principled Philly detective, trying to keep an eyewitness to a murder alive to testify against the dirty-cop perp. Said witness is not only an eight-year-old boy, but a member of Pennsylvania’s Amish community. Samuel (Lukas Haas) witnessed the slaying in a Philly train station where he and his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), were traveling to visit a relative. The real story here, however, is a fish-out-of-water one. No, not Samuel, but Book.
In order to protect the boy, Book must return him to Amish country and hide out there himself, waiting for the dirty cop and his boss to show up. Book is a man of action stymied and stultified as he must blend in with the passive, farm folk who eschew society and anything resembling modernity.
It’s as big a challenge for Book to stay on the same page with them and ready the community for the coming killers.
The script by screenwriters Earl W. Wallace and William Kelly fills every scene with that central conflict as Book must suppress his machismo and big-city ways. He remains at odds with the community in every scene, keeping his frustrations to a low boil as to not draw attention to his presence there. It all makes for a tense sit, especially when taunting teens bullying the Amish in town cause him to lose his cool and lash out in violence.
Without ever feeling heavy-handed or repetitive, the central character’s internal struggle is there on virtually every page, proving that such discipline in writing needs not be the handcuffs that many would tell you it is. Such rigors make Witness a textbook example of how to do it and yield brilliant results.
One of the greatest shortcomings of those writing horror today is their tendency to make so many characters in their stories act utterly stupid. Yes, the “monster in the house” needs to prevail throughout most of the film, but do its victims always have to be so gullible, inane, and unreasonable while being pursued? The Friday the 13th franchise in the 80s became so well-known for its idiotic characters missing every clue that their lives were in danger, audiences started to cheer for the villain Jason Voorhees because at least he was smart.
One 1985 film that ensured all the characters acted quite intelligently from first frame to last was the cult classic Fright Night.
Written and directed by Tom Holland, each character acts smarter than one would ever expect in the genre. The villainous antagonist, Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon—the definition of sly here), is a vampire who makes sure he is cordial and respectful of his new neighbors to not draw undue attention to himself. His new neighbor, Charlie Brewster (William Ragsdale), believes Jerry is a vampire and a killer and doesn’t hesitate to alert the authorities or inform his inner circle of family and friends. He knows his horror films and what a vampire does, and he uses that knowledge to become a formidable foe to Jerry through the entire story.
Charlie may be young and green, but he plays cat and mouse with the villain exceedingly well throughout. The film is almost a battle of wills, an elevated chess game in its ways with good guy and bad guy making moves and counter moves to confound the other. Additionally, those surrounding the two leads are smarter and more capable than most supporting casts in the genre.
Charlie’s girlfriend, Amy (Amanda Bearse), and BFF, Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), are shrewdly aware of all that’s happening. Most vampire films would make them easy victims, but not here. They all make it to the final act with their pluck still intact.
Nowhere was the intelligence of the film more evident than in the character of Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall, in a career-best performance). Peter is an aging, horror film star reduced to hosting a late-night monster movie show to make ends meet. Charlie idolizes him and employs him to prove Jerry is a genuine Nosferatu with the skillset culled from Peter’s years of vampire stalking onscreen.
Peter agrees to “help” because he needs the cash, but when he discovers Jerry’s lack of reflection in his cigarette case’s mirror, the old man doesn’t give up the ghost. Instead, he slyly lies his way out of the haunted house to live to fight their foil another day. Jason Voorhees may have made mincemeat out of his teenage prey, but Charlie Brewster and his cronies were not easy marks.
Because they’re smarter, so is the film, and worthy of an audience’s rooting interest.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
One of the greatest films of the 80s is director Robert Zemeckis’ classic comedy Back to the Future, co-written with his screenwriting partner, Bob Gale. For any writer wanting to write a comedy, this is one of the best movies to watch. It’s not only rollicking entertainment, but its ambition and intricacies put most modern film farces to utter shame.
It is not only outrageously funny, but it’s moving, dramatic, works in many ways as an adventure film and a sci-fi, plus it daringly touches upon themes of sexism, racism, terrorism, all while critiquing the Reagan administration.
And if that’s not enough for ambition, it has a complex plot that involves time travel, story points constantly weaving back on themselves, and even a daringly dirty subplot that finds one character fending off the sexual advances of his very own mother. Yes, Back to the Future actually “goes there,” plying Oedipal fears of incest to its multi-layered storytelling.
Yet with all that, the film never feels overstuffed or loses it fun. Instead, it proves that too many comedies today are written too simplistically, with little bravura or balls. Zemeckis and Gale proved that complexity could make comedy all the funnier because of the corners they painted their characters into.
It all starts with a time travel plot that would make Ray Bradbury jealous.
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is forced to travel back in time to the 1950s to save his friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) who’s been killed by Libyan terrorists. The vehicle that transports him is a souped-up DeLorean automobile, and it crashes upon its return to the Hill Valley, CA of yesteryear, stranding Marty in the past. As soon as he arrives, Marty discovers that his milquetoast dad, George (Crispin Glover), was a peeping Tom of a teenager back then, a nerdy coward, perving out, spying on the teenage Lorraine (Lea Thompson), Marty’s eventual mother. Knocked unconscious, Marty wakes up in Lorraine’s bed to find her already developing a crush on him and calling him “Calvin” since the name on his underwear band is Calvin Klein.
All that is established in the first 20 minutes. Marty must not only find a way to change the future so Brown won't be gunned down, but he must also find a way back to the future and fend off his lusting mom and make sure she ends up with George so his birth is guaranteed.
Along the way, he manages to keep his identity a secret, develop a deep bond with the past Brown, and even manages to help a young Chuck Berry find the inspiration to invent rock 'n roll. And Christopher Nolan thinks his films are filled with labyrinth plotting and intellectualism. Ha!
The plotting veers this way and that, never quite getting where you know it must go in the exact way it should. The screenplay even establishes one of the great ticking clocks—in order to reach maximum speed to be able to cross the timeline to return to modern-day America, Marty’s DeLorean must be jolted with a lightning bolt at a precise moment to ensure enough gigawatts of power to give his flux capacitor all it needs to cross timelines.
Every so often a comedy comes along that is similarly ambitious in its plotting. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) did so with a vast cast in separated through-lines, and The Hangover (2009) certainly gets points for its serpentine storytelling. And God knows most of Blake Edwards films, like Victor/Victoria from the 80s, contained a lot of plot that begged audiences to pay closer attention.
But too many comedies today settle for shallow laughs, two-dimensional characters, and infantile storytelling, rather than more complex comedy stylings of those found in Back to the Future.
In fact, it’s a shame far too many films in the 2020s, be they thrillers, frighteners, or comedies, retain the high-concept lesson from the 80s rather than the examples of more intellectual and ambitious storytelling that distinguished the better films from that decade.
Screenwriters’ flux capacitors might need some jolts of inspiration from the classics of that era.
*Feature image by Jeff York